Let’s get this straight from the beginning: The Van’s Aircraft RV-14A is not an off-the-shelf airplane. Every one of them out in the wild is custom-built.
Even its recommended 210 hp Lycoming Thunderbolt XIO-390 engine is hand-assembled, polished and ported by a select team of Lycoming employees. And the “A” denotes a nosewheel version, with the tailwheel model being the RV-14.
Every airplane that has ever been graced by the Van’s moniker is essentially a one-off, again by design.
These aircraft are delivered to buyers as sophisticated kits with an elaborate set of detailed assembly instructions—generally, five shipments of aluminum and fiberglass composite parts, pre-drilled, pre-welded and mostly pre-formed, and all machined to exacting standards by CNC machines. Since 1973, Aurora, Oregon-based Van’s has delivered more than 18,000 complete kits, beginning with the RV-3. Of all the kit aircraft delivered, there are more than 10,000 Van’s aircraft flying, more than any other aircraft kit manufacturer.
Why go with a kit aircraft if you are looking to own a general aviation airplane? Ask yourself: Are you looking for the adventure of building an aircraft? Not feeling rushed? Need an aircraft you can afford? Many kit buyers look purely at the economics of building and owning an amateur-built aircraft. They need to understand that you can only take full advantage of the economic advantages if you build the airplane yourself. Why?
FAA rules state that homebuilders must construct a minimum of 51 percent of the aircraft. Those who do can apply for and receive the Holy Grail of homebuilding, a repairman’s certificate entitling them to perform all the necessary maintenance on their own machine. Any aircraft owners who have paid labor costs for an annual inspection know the value of that certificate.
A New Kind of Kit
Putting together a modern homebuilt kit airplane such as the RV-14A is not a quixotic journey for your average, everyday pilot. It’s not Peter Garrison planning and then hand-fabricating every part of his Melmoth fliers. Richard VanGrunsven, founder and chief designer of Van’s Aircraft, notes the RV-14A takes roughly 1,000 to 3,000 labor-hours to build. Most humans translate that into one to five years of construction.
Who are the successful RV-14A builder-pilots in 2020? A lot of different people, it turns out. They include Punta Gorda, Florida-based retired educator Dr. Allan Stern, who sees himself as more builder than pilot, having tackled and completed an RV-6A, RV-8 and RV-12 before his RV-14A.
“It took me six years to build the RV-6A, which really had a lot of detail work left for the builder,” remembers Stern, who fully admits the build was also interrupted by travel. “I certainly wasn’t at it every day,” he continues. The RV-8 build went faster, and he held onto the airplane for about 10 years, enjoying its maneuverability and tandem seating configuration. He bought the light-sport RV-12 Experimental-LSA kit when he thought he might lose his FAA medical; it was another two-year build. And when Basic Med came in? He decided to go for a roomier airplane with the ability to fly longer cross-country legs than the RV-12.
“This [RV-14A] was the fastest build time, just 15 months, because I was retired,” Stern explains. “I came out to the airport at least five or six days a week to work on the project.”
After dedicating all that concentrated time to building, Stern couldn’t fly his project right after a designated airworthiness representative (DAR) certified it. He needed an extensive flight review before he was ready to do the test flying. In his case, the delay was minimal. He’s now chewing through the 40-hour test-flight time, and discovering, troubleshooting and eliminating glitches with each flight.
Semi-retired entrepreneur Alvin Fox, also of Florida, calls himself more pilot than builder. Fox spent much of his career flying Part 91 business and Part 135 charter, and concluded flying Part 121 for an airline—flying all sorts of business owners, employees and celebrities cross-country in the rarefied air of the flight levels. He owned a 2003 Cirrus SR22 long enough to go through a parachute repacking (mandatory every 10 years) and realized, upon doing the math, that his $100 hamburger outings were really costing him more like $300.
“That’s when I started looking at experimental, amateur-built airplanes,” he says. “I had a few friends who were working on composite airplanes, and my time with them showed me that experimental airplanes could really perform comparably to that Cirrus I had.” Fox stands 6 feet, 4 inches, so whatever he built had to have room. “I do love speed, but I also wanted an airplane I could comfortably meander up and down the coastline for 45 minutes and go real slow, sightseeing at an affordable operating cost.”
He saw the Van’s Aircraft booth at an airshow and decided to see what the airplanes were all about. The RV-6 and RV-7 were just too small, he remembers. “I had already thought about maybe doing a Lancair Legacy or something of that capacity, then I got to looking at the RV-14A. It was being coined as a clean-sheet designed for two 6-foot-4, 200-pound guys or gals, and it was very new. At that point, they didn’t have the entire kit complete. But the performance looked like it was on par with what I was after, and all with a four-cylinder engine, meaning the economy would be there too.”
The RV-14A’s semi-monocoque aluminum airframe is held together with rivets, just like its big sister, the -10. A rugged roll bar that spans the cockpit just behind the seats protects the pilot and passenger. The large, forward-tip-up canopy relies on a hinge that allows it to open wide for stand-up entry and loading baggage into the airplane’s 12-cubic-foot baggage area. (There’s no external baggage door.) That canopy also allows the aircraft’s maintainer complete access to the back side of the instrument panel and avionics connections, even while standing next to the airplane. The RV-14A is designed for the wide, tall, 200-pound individuals that are more realistic than the FAA’s 170-pound standard occupant used by certified aircraft.
Whenever possible, Van’s likes to keep its airplane designs simple, making the kits so buildable. The RV-14A can just about keep up with its larger sibling, the RV-10, despite the differences in horsepower—the RV-10 is pulled along by a 260 hp IO-540 Lycoming. The differences in gross weight—2,800 pounds max for the -10 versus 2,050 pounds max for the -14A—play a large part in the two-place airplane’s ability to keep up with its four-seat big sister.
Sharing the same wing planform, slotted flaps, and tapered steel-leaf-spring landing gear means the airplanes handle similarly, both in the air and throughout ground phases. The RV-14 models, however, appeal to those who might like a tailwheel configuration or the opportunity to fly some light aerobatics, with +6/-3 G stress tolerance built in when flown at the aerobatic gross weight of 1,900 pounds.
Fox was patient, and by March 2017, he was pulling the first rivets on his kit. A little more than three years later, the DAR inspected the completed airplane and found no discrepancies. Just three days later, it flew.
Fox credits moving to an airport community and joining the local EAA Chapter 565 with his success. “Early on, I had EAA tech counselors Vic Babyak and Barry Marz give me great advice on pitfalls to avoid—and terrific technical expertise connecting and configuring the Garmin electronics,” he says. He installed dual Garmin 3X touchscreens with three-axis autopilot capability and G5 backup instrumentation to create an excellent IFR cruising machine. And that it is.
After checking out as a “qualified pilot” as per FAA rules, I flew with Fox to see how those avionics worked. On climb-out, Fox selected the GPS approach for Runway 14 at La Belle Municipal Airport (X14), engaged the autopilot, and then managed his airspeed with throttle by hand. The airplane leveled at the selected altitude and smoothly began the approach. Fox worked the throttle as the airplane flew both the vertical and horizontal profile, and the 3X screens displayed the flight-path marker flying through the boxes. At the decision height, Fox brought the throttle forward and hit his “TO-GA” button, precisely located fingertip distance from the throttle, initiating the missed approach. The airplane then flew the missed approach as prescribed and entered the holding pattern at the designated fix, waiting for new direction.
The excellence of his avionics configuration would mean little for long-distance travel if the aircraft’s interior wasn’t comfortable enough to sit in for hours. Fox included custom-stitched leather seats from Classic Aero, seat heaters, and matching aerobatic five-point harnesses. The glint of the orange on his SteinAir-designed and -built panel matches the sparkly atomic orange on his custom Thunderbolt XIO-390 210 hp four-cylinder piston engine with roller camshaft technology, complete with E-Mag’s electronic ignition. Scheme Designers is crafting the paint scheme, but Fox preferred to build and test-fly first, then paint.
The EAA’s Flight Test Manual protocol has been Fox’s guiding light through his 40-hour test-flight regime. The manual, first released in 2018, provides guidance based on AC 90-116 for Phase 1 testing of experimental aircraft, including 18 flight-test cards that cover testing of the first taxi, takeoff and landing, climb speeds, stalling characteristics, and everything in between. Fox applied for and received approval to fly with two pilots through his DAR (two-pilot operations must be specified in the flight-test limitations approved by the DAR).
“As an ATP career pilot, I know how valuable that second pilot can be. There’s no better safety margin than having a crew that is equally trained and on the same page,” he says. Flights are carefully choreographed and coordinated through a preflight briefing, followed by extensive data recording. Every mission is followed by an extensive debrief.
“I’m just so happy the experimental world exists,” Fox says. He’s received his repairman’s certificate for the airplane, and looks forward to the many years ahead of flying it on long cross-countries with his wife and son. “Honestly, this has been a very doable project—you just need a little bit of planning, and of course, you’ve got to give it the time,” he says.
So, how do you get in line for an RV-14A of your own? Van’s Aircraft’s Oregon plant offers test flights to interested individuals. Though the airplane can and has been built in basements and garages, a dedicated hangar with a prescribed minimum of tooling is recommended. There are more than a dozen builder-assist centers listed on vansairforce.net for those who are willing to invest in having experts help them assemble their aircraft, and who are loath to purchase the tools required for one aircraft’s assembly. DARs can tell quickly if you didn’t actually contribute the lion’s share of sweat equity to your build.
Not quite ready to build, but still interested in the perks of owning an experimental amateur-built aircraft? There’s a used aircraft market for amateur-built kit airplanes, but caveat emptor. Don’t let anyone sell you a kit airplane represented as being factory-built. There are no Van’s Aircraft sanctioned factories for building up the company’s kits. If you want a factory-built Part 23-certified airplane, you need to look elsewhere.
You’ll discover firsthand if you do build your RV-14A how wonderfully fulfilling it is to fly an airplane you know intimately. Every kit builder is astonished on that first flight, and that grin they sport when they pop open the canopy at the end of a successful test run? It’s for real.
And How Does It Fly?
Very fine, indeed!
Bradenton, Florida-based Dennis Sutton was ready to get back into aviation, and retired physician M. Turner Billingsley had a newly minted, hand-built RV-14A for sale. It was a match, and Billingsley delivered N14VB to Sutton on a balmy spring day. There was only one catch: Sutton had not logged a flight in 20 years.
Enter Brett Williamson. A late bloomer in aviation, Williamson helped with a teen-built RV-12 that he owns a part of and learned to fly—and he decided to become a professional pilot.
“This specimen flies perfectly!” Williamson said when asked about the quality of Billingsley’s build. It is a good thing too, since Williamson has taken on not just an extensive flight review for Sutton, but also primary flight training for Sutton’s son, Jody, in the airplane. “Even with the relatively complex Garmin 3X touchscreen avionics and a constant speed propeller, the RV-14A’s efficiency and honest flying make it a good trainer,” Williamson says.
I flew N14VB with Williamson out of Sarasota, Florida’s airport (KSRQ) on a breezy afternoon and verified his claims. With two souls on board and full fuel, we were near gross weight for the aircraft (2,050 pounds). Using takeoff flaps, ground roll was about 250 to 300 feet. The airplane required only a slight pull to bring the nosewheel up; liftoff with the flaps was around 55 kias, and climb-out at 88 kias and full power approached 1,400 fpm (flaps up). Cruise climb is at 120 kias, 2,500 rpm and 25 inches manifold pressure, and produced a 1,000 to 1,200 fpm climb.
At altitude, I performed steep turns, which showed off the airplane’s excellent roll rate for a cross-country cruiser, feeling much lighter than the pull required for my RV-10, which has the same, slightly longer wing. The airplane stalled clean at 61 kias, and with full flaps at 53 kias. Both stalls broke with gentle buffeting, straight ahead. The flap application elicited a noted nose-down moment, which was easily correctable with the electric pitch trim, a hat switch on the stick. Again, the RV-10 behaves the same way.
Landing into a 15-knot headwind with full flaps and idle power at flare produced a measly 300-foot rollout—making the turn off was easy with minimal braking. This airplane could win spot-landing contests for the pilot.
This story appeared in the September 2020 issue of Flying Magazine